Remembering Lawrence Stenhouse

Professor Colin Richards believes that with the rise in interest in teacher research those advocating it, as well as those sceptical of it, need reminding of the wisdom of its founder, Lawrence Stenhouse.

Now more than ever we need to heed the words of Lawrence Stenhouse. His voice needs to be better known and his words better understood by the current generation of teachers, especially those interested in teacher research. His words provide inspiration, insight and challenge. The purpose of this post is to introduce the new generation of teachers to the man and his work very largely through his own memorable writing.

Who was he? Originally he was a secondary school teacher of English and history, later becoming a university teacher. The director of a major curriculum development project and latterly a professor of education at the University of East Anglia. He died in 1982 in mid-intellectual career but left behind a legacy of powerful ideas of which ‘teacher as researcher’ was only one.

At his most influential, Lawrence lived and worked in a different era from ours. In the 1970s there was no national curriculum, no national testing, no common leaving examination at age sixteen, no academies, and no Ofsted. The system was not as well funded as now; education was not as well valued; and most significantly schools and teachers were not subject to the degree of political control/influence that we currently experience. Why then should we want to read and ponder the thoughts of an educationist from a different era? Because in my view, more than any other academic at the time or now, Lawrence Stenhouse gets to the heart of the educational process. He got to the heart of what it is to be a teacher, to the heart of the ‘art’ of teaching, and to the key to its improvement.

In one of his books he begins by referring to one of the enduring fascinations and frustrations of the educational process — the inevitable gap between aspiration and reality. ‘Our educational realities seldom conform to our educational intentions. We cannot put our policies into practice. We should not regard this as a failure peculiar to schools and teachers. We have only to look around us to confirm that it is part of the human lot. But… improvement is possible if we are secure enough to face and study the nature of our failures. The central problem of evidence-informed practice is the gap between our ideas and our aspirations and our attempts to operationalise them’.

Elsewhere he absolves us from guilt at not achieving perfection in our teaching by recognising the ultra-ambitious nature of education: ‘it is clear that the idea of education is sufficiently ambitious to preclude the possibility of perfect performances. No teaching is good enough: therefore good teaching is teaching towards the improvement of teaching. The implication is that all teaching ought to be seen as experimental’.

Here he captures an essential characteristic of teaching — the pursuit of ideals by mere humans like ourselves with weaknesses and shortcomings. However, he sympathises with our predicament, our ‘lot’, but believes we can learn from falling short: ‘The gap between aspiration and teaching is a real and frustrating one. The gap can only be closed by adopting a research and development approach to one’s own teaching, whether alone or in a group of cooperating teachers.’

He sees the role of teacher research as contributing to ‘the betterment of schools through the improvement of teaching and learning. Its characteristic insistence is that ideas should encounter the discipline of practice and that practice should be encountered by ideas. The teacher research movement is an attack on the separation of theory and practice’ .

Lawrence is very clear. Education is not an applied science concerned with establishing general laws of teaching and learning; the teacher is not an applied scientist, let alone a technician. ‘I am declaring teaching an art. By art I mean an exercise of skill expressive of meaning .Teaching is the art which expresses in a form accessible to learners an understanding of the nature of that which is to be learned. All good art is an enquiry and an experiment. It is by virtue of being an artist that the teacher is a researcher. The point appears difficult to grasp because we have been invaded by the idea that research is scientific and concerned with general laws.’

As an art, teaching can never be perfected but it can be fostered and improved through aspirations translated into hypotheses that can then tested and refined in the classroom. ‘Teachers must be educated to develop their art, not to master it,  for the claim to mastery merely signals the abandoning of aspiration. Teaching is not to be regarded as a static accomplishment like a riding a bicycle or keeping a ledger; it, like all arts of high ambition, a strategy in the face of an impossible task.’

For Lawrence the essence of teacher research and teacher development is ‘sustained critical enquiry’ into your own teaching — not simply adopting procedures from competing alternatives whether offered by government agencies, MATs, LAs, neigbouring schools, educational gurus or CPD providers. That enquiry should be borne of an anxiety to do better and should be pursued not as a one-off activity but an ongoing process, preferably with other interested teachers. He argues, perhaps a little exaggeratedly, that ‘enquiry should, I think, be rooted in acutely felt anxiety, and research suffers when it is not. Such enquiry becomes systematic when it structured over time by continuities lodged in the intellectual biography of the researcher and coordinated with the work of others. But fundamental to such persistence of enquiry is a sceptical temper of mind sustained by critical principles, a doubt not only about the received and comfortable answers, but also about one’s own hypotheses’’.

He is clear that ‘each classroom should not be an island. Teachers […] need to communicate with one another. They should report their work. Thus a common vocabulary of concepts and a syntax of theory need to be developed. What seems to me most important is that research becomes part of a community of critical discourse. But perhaps too much research is published to the world, too little to the village. We need local cooperatives and papers as well as international conferences and journals.’

He is insistent on the provisional, tentative nature of all enquiries into teaching, whether by academic researchers or teachers themselves. ‘Findings must be so presented that a teacher is invited not to accept them but to test them by mounting a verification procedure in his own situation. Such proposals claim to be intelligent rather than correct’. He is insistent: ‘I am not seeking to claim that research should override your judgment; it should supplement it and enrich it’.

He is very aware of the difficulties facing teachers trying to research their own practice, including problems of time, access to research expertise and recognition of the importance of the activity by school and college leaders. However, ‘the main barriers to teachers’ assuming the role of researchers studying their own teaching in order to improve it, are psychological and social. The close examination of one’s professional performance is personally threatening; and the social climate in which teachers work generally offers little support to those who might be disposed to face that threat’Over thirty years later that ‘social climate’ may well be changing; let’s hope so.

My brief post cannot do justice to the inspiration and insights of Lawrence Stenhouse, but I encourage you to read the books cited below and to follow up references from there. As a great teacher himself he is aware of the gap between his aspirations and his practice but he is not discouraged, nor should we be. For him the last word: ‘But my practice is not successful. Success can achieved only by lowering our sights. The future is more powerfully formed by our commitments to those enterprises we think it worth pursuing even though we fall short of our aspirations’.


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  1. Well said, Colin. Indeed Lawrence Stenhouse was a giant and, perhaps even more than when he was alive, his ideas need widely disseminating and acting on. It was a privilege to have known him.

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